Eskom’s mighty mission to power up Majuba

Every hour, at least 15 huge trucks are loaded with coal and join a long line on the road from the site of a coal stockpile to Majuba power station in Mpumalanga, where the coal is then off-loaded by bulldozers in a stockyard and sent by conveyer to fire up four of Majuba’s six units.

This laborious, expensive and risky process is the Band-Aid holding together multiple fractures at Majuba caused by a devastating silo collapse at the power station last week.

The Band-Aid is, so far, keeping the lights on; but the situation is not sustainable.

Eskom CEO Tshediso Matona, while being as transparent as possible on the recovery plan, is refusing to release information or answer speculation on the cause of the crippling collapse of the central silo – silo 20 – last Saturday.

He and other executives refused to answer questions on allegations, made initially by trade union Solidarity soon after the collapse, that Eskom was aware of structural problems.

Deon Reyneke, Solidarity’s head of the energy industry, said in June, and again three weeks before the collapse, vibration of the silo had worsened.

Eskom executives were at pains to say this was not the case, sticking to their story that a vertical crack was discovered at 12.30pm last Saturday, resulting in a total collapse at 13.12pm.

The now collapsed central silo, which was built 20 years ago with a 50-year lifespan, was inspected at the end of last year in line with the maintenance schedule and there were “no signs of deterioration and structural damage”, according to group executive of generation Thava Govender.

Another executive, Dan Marokane, says historical monitoring data showed no abnormal vibration and gave no indication the silo was about to fail.

Eskom is investigating, and it will take three to six months to find out what happened.

Matona says the emergency procedures and recovery were “something near to miraculous”.

Power cuts were contained to Sunday only, limiting the effect on the economy, he says. All other power cuts during the week were from technical problems at local municipalities.

The next step in the recovery plan is to clear the site and continue the investigation.

“The investigation is under way. Until we know the full facts, with certainty, it serves no purpose to speculate,” he says, adding that only staff and contractors will have access to the site while personnel make the structure safe and clear of rubble.

Govender says Majuba, which usually generates about 3?800?megawatts, is currently generating 1?600MW, and not all units are operational. Eskom is looking at a temporary conveyor structure as the next step, while full recovery of coal feed systems will be completed in 24 months.

Sustainability executive Steve Lennon warned that the temporary solution at Majuba makes it more vulnerable to weather changes.

Although this is not the first major disaster at Eskom – there have been three in three years – Lennon says this is an isolated incident specific to the coal infrastructure at Majuba.

According to him, there is no reason to believe other potential calamities are around the corner, and Eskom analyses every major incident and its root cause.

“Major incidents are not uncommon, our job is to minimise and respond,” he says.

Technology and commercial executive Matshela Koko was the only person to hint at a defect, saying “there is reason to believe we need to dig deeper into the designs – whether they were adequate – we are concerned about that”.

Despite this, and other major disruptions, Eskom has only had load shedding twice since 2008.

“We have challenges, but I don’t think there is any challenge that I do not feel we are on top of,” Matona says, reserving comment on Eskom’s financial crisis for its financial results announcement later this month.

Govender says many other countries have problems, either with aging infrastructure or lack of capacity. South Africa has both.

Lennon says there will be times when this kind of event “will send us over the edge”, but that Eskom has been handling them well.

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